Ramesses Girdle



It’s unusual for any clothing a pharaoh wore to have survived and this is one of the finest textiles from the ancient world. It was discovered in Thebes and collected by Rev. Henry Stobart on his tour of Egypt in 1854-5. Cartouches of Ramesses III were inscribed in ink on two faces of the plain linen at one end but this is now almost completely destroyed (Stobart's 1855 catalogue has a copy of the text as it was when in his possession). Originally described as a ‘linen belt’ but since at least 1913 it has been called the ‘Ramesses Girdle’. Paintings of Ramesses III show him wearing similar long lengths of cloth wrapped several times around the chest in a herringbone fashion, like a girdle, before being fastened around the waist. The girdle is woven from linen and decorated with rows of ankh signs, a hieroglyph used to write the word for ‘life’. As a piece of clothing it provided upper body support and encircled the pharaoh with life-giving protection in the battlefield. The girdle is a warp-faced braid linen sash with an intricate weave structure producing a pattern of zig-zags, dots and rows of ankh signs in five colours. It measures 5.2 metres in length and tapers from 127 to 48 mm in width. This tapering is achieved by taking out bunches of unbleached threads from the centre at regular intervals and ensuring that the warp ends per cm remain the same. At the wider end a simple narrow, warp-faced band has been attached to provide loops for a means of fastening. At the narrow end, the remaining warp ends have been plaited. There has been debate as to how the girdle was woven but in 1982 Peter Collingwood demonstrated that it could not have been produced by tablet weaving and was most likely to have been made by a double weave technique. In 1912 the weave structure was analysed by Thorold Lee, who was head of a firm of specialist weavers in Birkenhead. It consists of 1689 warp ends arranged with a patterned border of 657 ends; a centre section of 360 unbleached ends a further patterned border of 672 ends. The fine tightly plied linen is in blue, red, yellow, green and natural flax. There is a subtle use of colour in that only eight of the warp ends are green and 24 are yellow; the majority of the warp being blue and unbleached. The yarn is described as three-ply having a count of about 105 lea linen (‘lea’ is the number of yards in a pound of linen divided by 300). In 1923 Grace Crowfoot reproduced a small portion of the girdle on a primitive ground loom that she had constructed and estimated that the whole girdle would have taken three to four months to weave. Mrs Gertrud Staudigel-Scharlau visited Liverpool in 1930 and made a full copy of it which is now in the Leipzig Museum of Ethnography (Museum für Völkerkunde zu Leipzig).